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Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Christian Delusion: Chapter Five--The Cosmology of the Bible

The fifth chapter in The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (ed. John Loftus) is entitled: "The Cosmology of the Bible," by Edward T. Babinski. Ed is a former evangelical Christian and a former believer in young earth creationism. He has been studying and critiquing creation "science" for many years. He is the author of Leaving The Fold: Testimonies Of Former Fundamentalists in which he documents the stories of over 30 former evangelical believers who have left conservative Christianity. He also has an interesting blog where he discusses issues relevant to creationism and science.

In his chapter in The Christian Delusion, Ed makes the point that the cosmology presented in the Hebrew Scriptures is no different than the one held by Israel's neighbors. Typically, ancient Near Eastern cosmological writings depict heaven (or sky) and earth (dry, flat land) as the two halves of creation, and they describe ways in which the sky came to be held securely above the earth (p. 110). In Egyptian cosmology, heaven was represented as the underbelly of a star-studded celestial cow whose legs were planted firmly on the earth below (p. 111). In another image, it was depicted as an inverted pan with stars on it--and there is an image of a divine Egyptian king holding up the inverted pan of heaven (p. 111). Other images were similar but they all pictured the earth as flat with the sky being held above it by four legs or pillars. The Egyptian accounts of creation sound very similar to Genesis 1. They begin with divinities of water, darkness, formlessness, and emptiness, as well as air and wind. Creation takes place via a regal command . . . (p. 112).

In Mesopotamian cultures, the same kind of descriptions are found. A Sumerian myth depicts a single mountain rising out of a primeval sea and an air-god dividing the mountain in two to form heaven and earth, lifting heaven on high. In a Hittite version of the separation of heaven and earth, a saw, or divine cleaver, does the dividing. In Phoenician cosmology, a "world egg" cracks into two equal halves, heaven above and earth below. And in Babylonian and Hebrew versions waters are divided (p. 113). According to the Sumerians, the heavens and earth were created by the "word" of their god, Enki. For the Babylonians, it was Marduk who was Creator of the earth above the waters, establisher of things on high and who made mankind . . . . creatures with the breath of life (p. 117). The cosmologies of the all the ANE peoples, including the Hebrews imagined the cosmos as requiring divine support, especially the heavens/sky above a flat earth. They also shared the concept of a cosmic ocean that existed before creation (p. 119).

So anyone who thinks that the portrait of creation presented in Genesis was unique to the Hebrews is uninformed on ANE mythology. The parallels are unmistakable. In addition, even as these other cultures had multiple "creation stories," the Hebrews did as well. Virtually all scholars recognize that the story in Genesis 1 is different than the story in Genesis 2. There are also creation stories or myths to be found in the Psalms (74:12-17; 89:11-13) and the book of Job (26:7-13; 38:1-11) which probably predate the Genesis stories. All of these bear strong resemblance to the stories told by other ANE cultures.

The Hebrews viewed the universe has having three levels: 1) heaven, 2) earth, and 3) sheol or the place of the dead, under the earth. The first level was the abode of God, the stars and the moon, the second was the abode of man, and the third was the abode of the dead. God was not light years away but just above us as if in a balcony. That is why at the tower of Babel (Gen. 11), ancient man thought he could climb his way to God. The earth was seen as flat with four corners. This view continued into the New Testament and was no doubt the view of Jesus himself. He spoke of the whole earth seeing the Son of Man when he comes on the clouds (Matt. 24:30-31). Below the earth is the netherworld where the dead go (Gen. 37:35, 1 Sam. 2:6, Job 7:9, Isa. 14:11, etc.). In the book of Revelation, this is seen to be like a bottomless pit (Rev. 9) where demons, the damned and even Satan himself sometimes abides. The writer of 1 Peter envisioned Jesus as going down into this region at his death and preaching (1 Pet. 3:19). Paul seems to indicate that he took some of these souls with him back to heaven (Eph. 4:8), thus leaving only the eternally damned there.

Thus, it should be obvious to any informed observer that the Bible simply presents the view of the universe as commonly held by the peoples of the ANE. There is no reason to believe that the Hebrews' version of the story came from a divine being any more than it is to believe that the Babylonian stories came from Marduk or the Sumerian stories came from Enki. Amazingly enough, though, there are many Christians who continue to believe these myths to be literally true simply because they have made a prior faith commitment to the God of the Bible and have presupposed that everything in it must be true. No matter what science says, they will cling to this ancient mythology. A prime example is Kurt Wise who has a Ph.D. in geology from Harvard University and studied under the famed Stephen Jay Gould. Wise said:
Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand (In Six Days : Why Fifty Scientists Choose to Believe in Creation, p. 355).


  1. Kurt Wise probably isn't the slightest bit embarrassed by the statement, either. In fact, in many circles, it's seen as a courageous assertion of faith everyone ought to emulate. What it really amounts to, though is, "I don't care about facts. All I care about is what the Bible says."

    It's the old two-stage rule:

    1. The Bible is always right.
    2. If it isn't right, see rule 1.

    BTW, I do have to admit that the Genesis creation account is generally superior to other ANE creation myths in many respects. For example, I've read ancient stories where one god slays another and his flowing blood becomes the seas -- that kind of weird, gory thing.

    Such an admission doesn't constitute a denial of the Genesis story's mythical character. But it's credit where credit is due.

  2. Steve,

    I really think that you missed your calling. You should have been a comedian.

    And yes you are right. The Hebrew myths are an improvement over some of the others but I bet many Christians would believe it if the Bible said that exactly the same thing as the myth you mentioned.

  3. Another interesting creationist who has a blog that I frequent is Todd Wood. He admits there is plenty of evidence for evolution and in fact has chastised his fellow creationists when they claim that there is no evidence for evolution (like Harvey Burnett does over at Debunking Christianity). Wood follows the same line of thinking that Wise does, the Bible comes first.

  4. A very interesting article on this subject was just published over at It is entitled: The Biblical Creation in its Ancient Near Eastern Context by Joseph Lam.